Penn State Football

Here’s how Penn State QB Sean Clifford has already earned his teammates’ respect, confidence

Who will be Penn State’s starting QB?

Penn State is looking to fill the quarterback position this season.
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Penn State is looking to fill the quarterback position this season.

Penn State wideout Mac Hippenhammer couldn’t remember how early in the summer it came, or even who the offending party was. But he still can’t forget the scene — a simple example of how Sean Clifford has earned his teammates’ respect this offseason.

On a warm summer day, long after other players called it quits, Clifford lingered on the field with the receivers. He knew all their routes and responsibilities, and he wasn’t afraid to correct his teammates. So, when one receiver ran the wrong tree, Clifford let him have it.

“C’mon, man, what happened?” Hippenhammer remembered Clifford shouting. “Let’s do that again!”

“He’s really taking control,” Hippenhammer said. “If the offense isn’t performing how it should be, he’ll bring us together and he’ll say, ‘You guys need to step it up.’”

Clifford’s act wasn’t remarkable, in the sense that the same scene replays on many practice fields across America. But, four months ago, Clifford was supposed to be QB2. And what makes the example so unique is how quickly Clifford became more vocal and more confident as the likely QB1 following Tommy Stevens’ transfer. Almost overnight.

“Tommy was a vocal guy ever since he’s been here so, with him not being here, someone has to step up,” Clifford said Saturday at Penn State media day. “And I’ve tried to do my best to keep this team in line and make sure we’re going in the right direction.”

On some days, Clifford would spend as long as five hours in the film room. He’d help organize post-workout drills. He’d text the staff with playbook questions. When asked how many days he took off this summer, he simply shrugged and estimated there was about one combined week — or maybe two — where he didn’t do anything physical.

“But,” he added, after giving the question some thought, “I don’t think a day went by where I didn’t have some football going on (like watching film). ... It’s amusing how much time I’ve put into it, but I love the sport and I have a serious passion for it. I wouldn’t want to spend my time any other way.”

On Saturday, several teammates said they saw glimpses of Clifford’s leadership last season when he’d encourage the young receivers or running backs. But that leadership has since bubbled to the surface; he’s gone from mentee to mentor. “He’s hopping in it a lot more now,” running back Ricky Slade said.

During practice open to the media Saturday evening, Clifford was seen explaining one play to a teammate, writing in the air as if he were diagramming on a chalkboard, until the teammate nodded. Then Clifford smiled, and both went their separate ways.

Clifford is still a bit of a mystery to fans and reporters in that, outside of his play at the annual Blue-White scrimmage, he’s thrown a total of seven passes in actual games. Granted, he completed five of those for 195 yards and two touchdowns — but that’s still a limited sample size.

His teammates don’t seem too concerned, especially with his offseason approach.

“His process is just unmatched,” wideout Dan Chisena said. “The level of preparation he’s been putting in this entire summer has been really impressive. Every day, he comes in early and he’d throw and watch film. ... Day in and day out, he just puts in the hours and goes above and beyond. That gives the rest of the guys a lot of confidence in him.”

Clifford technically isn’t yet the starter. James Franklin is attempting to push his quarterbacks by labeling this an open competition, but even online sportsbook BetOnline refused to put odds on the battle. According to a spokesperson, “Despite Franklin saying it’s an open competition, they (the oddsmakers) feel the odds are too long to set.”

Even when the inevitable time comes when Clifford is named the starter, the Ohio native said nothing will change for him. He stepped on campus with the mindset to prepare as if he was the starter so, once that comes to fruition, “Why would I change it?”

He’s adjusted as the team has needed. When Stevens left and a team meeting was called, Clifford addressed the room and vowed: “There will be no drop-off in the quarterback position.” From that point on, Clifford took it upon himself to be a leader of this offense.

“This year his whole demeanor has changed because he’s in the running for the starting job,” said Hippenhammer, who considers Clifford a “badass.” “It’s crazy how your life can change, but he’s stepped up. The way he goes about things, running the offense and being vocal, it’s amazing to see.”

Said walk-on QB Michael Shuster: “Something that differentiates the two (quarterbacks) is Sean is a little more aggressive. He’s a guy that will get in your face, and he’ll yell at you a little bit.”

The potential of Penn State’s offense is capped by Clifford. If he’s great, the offense will be great. If he struggles, the offense will struggle.

Clifford is well-aware of the responsibility of the position — it’s part of the reason he committed following his high school sophomore year — but he previously said he’s never been more confident.

“If you’re prepared, there’s no reason to be nervous for anything, honestly,” Clifford said Saturday. “The moment I’m not prepared for a game is the moment I’ll be nervous. But that’ll never happen.”